dear technophobes, the kids are quite all right…

November 23, 2010

When the media decides to address the topic of how distracting it is to be constantly connected to the web via just about every electronic device we now carry, it all too often adopts the Nicholas Carr approach, which is to sound the alarm and warn us that because someone has trouble concentrating and checks his e-mails a bit too much, it means that using the web is turning us into idiots with the attention span of a fly. Thankfully, when a new article on the subject in NYT took a whack at cataloging kids’ digital distractions, it decided not to just parrot technophobic truisms, but gave a more or less accurate account of how and why high school students slack off with social media sites. And although the article didn’t explicitly call out what’s really behind the trend in digital procrastination, it gave more than enough details to show that slacking off is nothing new and when given the chance, kids would much rather chat, watch videos, or play games rather than do their homework. If you weren’t aware of this and think that kids are being over-stimulated into ADHD, you’re simply wrong.

Here’s the problem. We require kids to simultaneously be well rounded in math, science, and the humanities while at the same time narrowing down their specialization so they choose the proper major in college. There is some leeway and we do allow them to focus more in one area than in others, but overall, we want them to both study everything, and specialize in something by their senior year in high school. However, a high school student is probably not sure what he or she really wants to do. Yes, the student probably has an idea and if it seems like a really exciting thing to do for a living, that student will obsess over it and devote all available time and effort to making it happen, just like 17 year old wannabe filmmaker Vishal Singh featured in the story. He won’t get into any serious film school with a 2.3 grade point average and his portfolio isn’t going to outweigh a university’s requirement for at least a 3.0 if not a 3.5 to even consider an applicant viable because colleges do require students to take classes that will not be directly related to their majors. The last thing they need is the kind of student who obsessively studies his favorite topic at the expense of every other academic area. But in an obsessed high school student’s mind, all that matters is what he wants, not what will soon be required of him by people with who he can’t negotiate and plead until they eventually give in.

Likewise, students don’t like to do homework, period. Procrastination is basically an avoidance mechanism, an umbrella term for any distractions with which the students can occupy themselves not to do something. To then go around and ask them whether technology is really distracting them from doing their work gives them an extremely convenient way out, and virtually all the kids interviewed for the article immediately latched on to the evil computer excuse. Oh sure they’d just do their homework, but that damn siren song of Facebook! This is the reason why they can’t just concentrate and churn out a mind-numbing six page essay on the history of agricultural communities in pre-industrial America, not the fact that they were given an assignment they could not be paid to care less about and which will be forgotten as soon as it’s graded. And really, even as an adult grad student, I can understand. There’s nothing worse than doing an assignment you’re being forced to do by a professor who’s just following the syllabus and doesn’t want to give you the time and the ability to research the relevant topics on your own. Maybe that’s what’s needed, to give high school students more independent study time, allowing them to pick topics that interest them more and hold them accountable for doing a good, thorough analysis of the subject in a paper and a presentation?

What we’re seeing with all the time students are spending on Facebook, YouTube, and texting doesn’t show some nefarious technological addiction at work, threatening to annihilate the attention span of a generation, but reveals just how little students are engaged by a teaching style that hasn’t evolved with the modern world. For all the talk about “engaging young minds” and “encouraging creativity and flexibility,” we’re still sitting our students down in a classroom and talking at them like we did in the 1950s. There are times when this is the appropriate thing to do, but in many cases, there has to be more being done to get students to pay attention, and teachers need to demand more of their students than passive silence. The kids are all right, they’re just being kids. We’re just not revising our teaching methodology to keep up with the times and blaming our total lack of progress in engaging new generations on the boogeyman of technology.

[ photo illustration by Gilad Benari ]

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  • John C

    Great post! When I look at US education policies it is all driven by test scores. That scares me. If I were in a position to hire someone my first question would NOT be what they scored on the SATs or what their GPA in college was. We are not teaching our children how to THINK critically about problems. Education is based a lot on memorization and regurgitation as opposed to thinking. Funny how one could draw a parallel with the US Political landscape….

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    Funny how one could draw a parallel with the US Political landscape….

    As much as this smacks of conspiracy theories, I’m not sure this wasn’t the specific intention, at least with some of the educational policies that have been promoted. A very large percentage of politicians in office right now (of all parties) would be distinctly disadvantaged by voters with critical-thinking ability, and let’s face it, Fox News relies on its absence. I have a hard time looking at the tactics of political campaigns, and the programs instilled or supported by those in office, and feeling that they aren’t trying to maintain voter intelligence at a specific level. It’s easier to promote how religious you claim to be than how effective your governing is.

  • Greg Fish

    Al, but it’s the hyper-partisan voters who think they have the best critical thinking skills in the electorate, you know, unlike those moderate voters who “are just too naive to see how [ insert party ]’s platform will ruin them and destroy America.” Partisan politics tend to be much more emotional than cerebral.

  • MumbaiRamki

    I think, finding reasons for not doing homework in facebook scraps seems half baked. However , i don’t think Nicholas Carr drives that point . It is the effect of screen based technologies and applications and the kind of usage on deep and extended thinking which forms a culture of one’s life.

    It is a combination of an individual’s neural circutery , its adaption to such technology and the effects of technology by itself on brain that decides the effect on different modes of thinking.